ways of knowing: part 2

How can understanding the different ways of knowing (see “ways of knowing: part 1”) help us understand how students learn?

According to research, most college/first-year university students are in the absolute or transitional stages of knowing, with a few in the independent stage. In a literature class, “absolute knowers” are often frustrated. They expect to be provided with definitions and formulae they can use in order to produce good writing, and they will try to remember these definitions and formulae and apply them directly, without much depth of thought. For example, when I give students a possible formula for constructing a statement of a theme (“In [title of story], [author] suggests that when people [think/act/feel like this], [this is the result]”), absolute knowers tend to apply the formula in a hit-or-miss fashion, often coming up with statements that are banal and/or inaccurate. (“In ‘The Boat,’ Alistair MacLeod suggests that when people fish for a living, they want their children to fish, too.”) Absolute knowers want to be told “correct” answers to analytical questions that require more subtle reasoning.

Other students, those who are “transitional knowers”, expect teachers to help them understand and apply their knowledge. These students often have an easier time in English classes, because they are less dependent on being given “facts” and are more able to see the need for thinking and application as opposed to memorization. However, they are often still concerned about whether they are doing things “right;” for them, “right” usually means “the way the teacher expects me to,” as opposed to “the fundamentally correct way.” I think my job in that respect is to convince them that my expectations are pretty flexible, and that what I want more than anything is for them to surprise me, and to help me think about and see things in a different way.

I think that providing “absolute knowers” with some kinds of concrete information (elements of narrative and of argument, research techniques, grammatical rules, formatting guidelines, etc.), as well as clear explanations of the guidelines and structure of the course, is helpful to them. I think “transitional knowers” are often more generally stimulated and interested by courses in which they are asked to identify, work on and apply skills they already have. My teaching involves a lot of student-centred activity (small-group discussion, application exercises, personal writing, etc.), and guided class discussion, so I hope that transitional knowers find themselves fairly comfortable, and feel themselves directed toward more independent thinking (the next stage in ways of knowing), as long as I validate their personal approaches and build their confidence. Absolute knowers may need more structure and guidance, but if they receive it, they may become more at ease with expressing their own perspectives and will not need constant reinforcement in the form of being told the “right” answers.

(This post was adapted from a personal response I wrote for an MEd course.)

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